It probably means something that I didn't see many movies in the theater this year, but I did see (and participate in) quite a few live performances. One of the things I love most about Maine is what a terrific environment it is for the arts in all forms; almost everyone I know in Maine is active in some form of the arts, whether it's painting or music or theater or all of the above. Hardly anyone I know makes any money at it, it's just something we all need to do to feel like whole people. People in big cities forget about this sometimes.
Anyway, I directed one show this year (Bell, Book and Candle at Gaslight Theater), produced another (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at Gaslight), and performed in a third (Doubt, at Aqua City Actors Theatre), so all of those shows are automatically disqualified from this list. But in chronological order, these were the best shows I saw this year. Leave your own favorites in the comments section.
1. "Hamlet" at The Theater at Monmouth, Monmouth, ME, August. Play by William Shakespeare, directed by Jeri Pitcher. Part of the genius of "Hamlet" is that every production is completely different, depending on the actor who plays Hamlet. Directors can do what they want to with the setting — I've seen "Hamlets" set in the present day, in medieval times, in Elizabethan times, etc. — but the central question of the play is "What is Hamlet so worked up about?" and every lead actor brings his own answer. In Monmouth's production, babyfaced Josh Scharback played a Hamlet who had been over-indulged as a child, and was now a petulant adult dealing with real problems for the first time in his life. It worked very well. The production's Ophelia (Emily Rast) was also especially good, desperate and earnest. Poor Ophelia.
2. "How I Learned to Drive," Aqua City Actors Theatre, Waterville, ME, September. Play by Paula Vogel, directed by Evan Sposato. ACAT chooses plays that offer actors the chance to play fantastic roles, and this play delivered. It's a spare memory play that is both brutal and tender, about the inappropriate relationship between the main character, "Li'l Bit," and her uncle Peck. Ashley St. Pierre and Andrew Smith were fearless in the roles, and everyone who saw this show walked out shaken.
3. "Longfellow's Shorts: John Connolly," an Affiliate Artists Event at the Portland Stage, Portland, ME, October. A readers' theater production of the first half of The Gates by John Connolly, followed by actors' readings of several pieces that have influenced the author's career: the opening of Bleak House by Charles Dickens, a poem by ee cummings, a short story by M.R. James. Readers' theater is magical when it's done well, and this was as good an example as I've ever seen. Great fun, and made me think the book should be adapted for the purpose.
4. "Rabbit Hole" at Gaslight Theater, Hallowell, ME, November. Play by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by Lee Kerr. Without question, this show was a hard sell. People would ask me what it was about; I'd say, "It's about a couple trying to cope with the death of their five-year-old boy," and watch them step back. But it's not a play that leaves you in despair; in fact, it's a play about how grief is normal, and how life requires us to accept sorrow as well as joy. I cannot remember seeing better performances on the Gaslight stage, especially from Laura Graham as Becca, Bart Shattuck as Howie, and Margaret Matheson as Nat.
5. The Pixies at DAR Constitution Hall, Washington, DC, November. I've already written about this, but seriously: it goes on my lifetime list of top five rock concerts. It reminded me that sometimes getting older does mean getting better, and that the greatest wealth we have as we age are the friends and colleagues we've been able to hang on to for decades. The visuals were cool without being distracting, the sound was perfect, and the band was tighter than a fat lady in coach. Plus, Doolittle is still a great album, 20 years on.